Last week, when multiple fires were igniting and winds were fanning an already bad situation, an attention grabbing post appeared on social media that asked a 3 word question in big, bold, almost panicked letters. It simply said, “WHERE’S THE FIRE?”
In the early afternoon of Tuesday, April 17, a fire started near the town of Walsh in Baca County, Colorado. The conditions couldn’t have been worse for what was soon referred to as the Badger Hole Fire. The county is in severe drought. The high temperature that day was 84 degrees, a full 17 degrees above average for this time of year. And there were high sustained winds with gusts in excess of 50 mph.
With numerous prospects to vote on the horizon and the Kiowa County Fire Prevention Board only recently being created, we thought it was a good idea to give a heads up about the upcoming election.
When we, as both individuals and a society, stop valuing the importance of truth and begin to believe that it can be stretched or wrapped in a way that suits our purposes without damaging its integrity, we eventually lose our grasp on what is actually true and what is not. Once that happens, we’re immediately vulnerable to manipulation and control by those with great strength and power. And, as history has shown over and over again, we can end up—sometimes for years—believing things are one way when, in reality, they’re something else entirely.
Take the tobacco industry. For years, big tobacco companies sold cigarettes to the public with phrases like “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” or—my favorite—“Most doctors prefer to smoke Camels”. Meanwhile, the companies downplayed (or ignored) the addictive properties of tobacco. Who can forget that image from the mid-90s of the CEOs of the seven biggest tobacco companies testifying (under oath and before Congress) that cigarettes were not addictive?
Uh…no. Sorry, boys. Ain’t buyin’ it.
Another slap-you-in-the-face case involves opioids. When pharmaceutical companies first started marketing opioids to doctors to prescribe for their patients, they emphasized the drugs’ effectiveness in treating pain and, despite what seems to be evidence from the beginning, deliberately downplayed their highly addictive nature. In fact, some companies claimed that certain opioids were actually anti-addictive. So, doctors—in good faith—prescribed them to their patients, and patients—in good faith—took them as ordered. By the time the truth was revealed, the country had a $500 billion problem with addiction. If there had been no one there to break that story—that is, to proclaim that truth—and put the issue on the public radar, the situation would have gone undetected for longer than it already did.
Without knowledge of the truth, people are not informed. People who are not informed are also not empowered.
The founders of this country (some pretty astonishing guys) established a system where the power held by the 3 branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial—was checked by the other 2 branches. But there was one “institution” that kept them all in check, and that was the press or, as it’s now called, the media. In fact, the press is so essential to democracy that some of the founding fathers referred to it as the “fourth branch of government”.
And now, the news is in the news. The media is under attack, and it’s coming from a number of different directions.
Financially, it’s a tough business. Operating a newspaper, even at the local level, is an expensive proposition. The paper relies on attracting readers and then relies on those readers to respond to the ads the newspaper runs along with the content. Lots of places for problems along that line. The same holds true for network television and cable.
There’s also a lot more competition, especially from the internet. Anyone with a camera, a link and the ability to put together a few words that make a sentence can set up shop as a “news source”, and the average Joe cruising the web has literally no idea if what he’s reading is accurate or not. And, frankly, finding out takes more time and effort than most people have or are willing to spend.
But the most concerning threat to the press is the undermining of the press’ legitimacy for reporting the truth.
There’s no doubt that, in many ways, the press is harming itself. When a media outlet—doesn’t matter if it’s conservative or liberal, both sides are guilty—gives voice to journalists who are biased or to people who present themselves as journalists but are really just commentators presenting their opinion and calling it “news”, the public’s trust has been betrayed. Absolutely. And those media outlets must hold themselves—and each other--accountable.
Unfortunately, more and more, “fake news” is being applied to unwelcome news, and that’s a vital distinction that must not be missed. When people begin to believe that news they don’t want to hear is the same as news that isn’t true—a sentiment often reflected in the statement “I don’t believe anything I read in the news anymore”—people start to seek out “news” that is comfortable, is more suited to their purposes and makes them feel better.
And that’s a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong people.
The vast majority of journalists want to report on the truth. They will research a story from a number of different angles, talk to a minimum of two reliable and independent sources, will check their facts numerous times and, in big organizations, work with people whose entire job is confirming statements made to the press. Are mistakes made sometimes? Of course. But there is a world of difference between mistakes and sweeping condemnation of the media as “fake news”, which encourages people to, literally, throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Those of us who work for and with the Kiowa County Independent do our very best to be fair, objective and truthful in our reporting. When covering the news, we will spend—no exaggeration—numerous hours researching a story, making sure that we’re looking at it from all angles and then reporting the truth of what we’ve learned in a way that’s relevant to the lives of our readers. If we’re running an editorial, we identify it as such. If we’re presenting an idea or what we see as a potential solution to a problem, we go to extra effort to make it clear that we are presenting exactly that—an idea—for readers to consider and then decide on its merit themselves. And, if we whiff on a story and misrepresent the situation, we count on our readers to hold us accountable.
The newspaper is a community effort and, hopefully, the community benefits from what we do. After all, we live here, too. The way we view it, we’re all in this together.